The latest news coming in from Turkey as we closed this issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly is that since Wednesday night, March 5, US supplies management teams of the US 1st Cavalry Division have been posted at four Turkish sea harbors, taking delivery of the equipment of the US 4th Infantry Division discharged after a long wait at sea. For some weeks, twenty-six US cargo ships, carrying the division’s tanks and heavy equipment, have been sitting over the horizon off Turkish shores. Now, they are unloading their cargoes directly onto railcars heading out to the Turkish-Iraqi frontier.
Tens of thousands of 4th division troops are still aboard the freighters, except for the units flown in by air. According to a US war command estimate, those troops will need three days to reach the Iraqi frontier from the moment the signal to land is flashed by the Ankara government.
That signal may come as soon as next week in the light of a certain political machination, to which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, referred obliquely when he said on Wednesday, March 5: “US forces will open a second front from the north against Iraq, with or without Turkey’s help.”
This is what he meant.
Recep Tayyup Erdogan was banned from running for election last November although his Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory. That ban has expired and he will run for a seat in parliament on behalf of the southeastern Siirt Province in the provincial election next Sunday, March 9. From there, he will jump straight into the prime minister’s seat as head of the ruling party.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Ankara sources quote prime minister Abdullah Gul as informing confidants that he has agreed to step down and serve as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the Erdogan government. It is all settled between them.
We are also informed that Erdogan has meanwhile informed Washington that, a week after taking office, he will have completed the process for gaining a parliamentary majority to allow US troops to use Turkey as a launch pad into Iraq, thereby overruling the defeat of that motion last Saturday, March 1. This would mean that the second front, which was thrown in doubt by the first vote, can go into operation by mid-March.
This word from Ankara was pivotal to President George W. Bush’s decision to set a date for the US offensive. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Ankara, the United States received a promise from Erdogan and the Turkish chief of staff, General Hilmi Ozkok that all 62,000 US troops and the equipment needed to open a second front against Iraq would be permitted to operate from Turkey, whatever the political situation in Ankara.
Laying out his plan of action for the US presidential envoy for Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad, Erdogan said that he would immediately sack the five cabinet ministers who led the opposition to military cooperation with the US war on Iraq as soon as he took office. Even if the political process dragged out, he would not hold Washington hostage to Turkish politics. American action could press forward from Turkey under standing strategic accords between the two countries.
Turkish troops, he promised, would fight alongside American units and those units could count on Turkish bases.
General Ozkok this week wholeheartedly endorsed that pledge after overcoming his trepidation over the threat of a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation in northern Iraq igniting a Kurdish revolt in Turkey.
Erdogan only asked that US troops landing in Turkey maintain a low profile and act like participants in Operation Northern Watch, which enforces the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. He also requested that the arrival of US forces – tanks crews and soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division – be kept low key and inconspicuous until next weekend. American soldiers in civilian clothes will continue to be ferried by commercial planes into Turkish air bases. To collect their gear, they will head out to US camps being thrown up in southern Turkey or Turkish military facilities placed at US disposal.
Both Erdogan and his chief of staff are putting their careers on the line in a far from certain ploy.
Turkish politicians are unlikely to formally endorse American troop landings until the US campaign in northern Iraq is a fait accompli. However, although Turkey stands in desperate need of the multibillion financial package promised by the Bush administration for Ankara’s participation, Erdogan is additionally influenced by another consideration. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources and experts stress that the future prime minister wants a military presence in northern Iraq as leverage for a say in the US military administration of the region and especially its oil fields, just in case Washington reneges on its pledge of $2 billion a year in oil revenues and guarantee that Iraqi Kurdistan will not be granted independence.
Other Key Military Developments on Iraq
Unified Marines HQ Set Up
US war commander General Tommy Franks has established a unified Marine headquarters for the coming conflict. It has been set up near the war command at Camp As-Sayliyah in Kuwait and will serve Marine Force West, Marine Force East and the 1st Cavalry Division now en route to Kuwait.
Air Power Deployment Is Completed
More than 6,000 bombers, fighters, surveillance planes and AWACs aircraft are poised for action at air bases in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Jordan, as well as in such outer tier locations as the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and the RAF Fairford base in Gloucestershire, England, where 14 B-52 bombers have been deployed.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say the most important launch bases for the air blitz against Iraq are located in Saudi Arabia, far from the spotlights of the world media. Those bases are the huge Prince Sultan air facility southeast of Riyadh and the Aramco air installation at Dhahran, in the heart of the kingdom’s eastern oil region.
Our sources reveal that the main thrust of the allied aerial offensive against Iraq’s power centers, Tikrit and Baghdad, will come from Dhahran, where a vast air fleet is concentrated.
A dot in a vast expanse of desert, Dahran and its oil fields are under heavy Saudi and American guard. It was chosen for its remote location and the ease with which it can be secured against terrorist attack. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources warn that al Qaeda is keeping a close eye on the base, deeming it a potential target, along with the Prince Sultan facility, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and installations and Saudi princes in their palaces.
The terror menace drew closer to those targets this week. For the first time, al Qaeda explicitly threatened a nationwide insurrection to overthrow the Saudi throne, citing the revolt staged in November 1979 by Wahhabist Othaiba tribesmen and members of the Saudi National Guard, who succeeded in seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, site of the sacred Kaabah.
That rebellion shook the Saudi throne to its very foundations and was put down only by rushing foreign counter-terror assistance to the sacred site.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, Britain has completed the build-up of fighter aircraft, bombers and helicopters in Jordan. The aircraft flew in from Cyprus, crossing Israeli air space after Jerusalem acceded to a secret British request for transit permission.
The aircraft are now stationed in three air bases, Al Azraq, Ruwaished and Abu Tarha, where US special forces and Marines are also poised for action in western and central Iraq.
The Big Battle of Khurmal in Northern Kurdistan
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, a large-scale battle against al Qaeda has been secretly raging for the past week in the mountains of northern Kurdistan near the town of Khurmal, north of Halabja. Kurdish militiamen of the Patriotic Front of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, US, Australian and Turkish special forces are pitted against several thousand gunmen of the radical Kurdish Ansar al-Islam.
Some 400 to 500 armed al Qaeda operatives are fighting alongside Ansar al-Islam.
It is the biggest offensive to be launched against al Qaeda and its affiliates since the inconclusive Operation Anaconda in March 2002, when special forces from the United States, Australia and New Zealand fought al Qaeda in the Shahi-I-Kot region of eastern Afghanistan. The disappointments of that much publicized campaign may have led the Pentagon, the commanders of US special forces in northern Iraq and the US Iraq war command to keep this clash of arms quiet. (Click here to view the battle zone on DEBKA’s special map of Iraq)
Several military sources in the field tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the secrecy surrounding the battle has been so tight that no one really knows who started it. Both sides have mounted artillery barrages, attacks and counter-attacks, without achieving any real gains. Ansar al-Islam fighters continue to hold their positions north of Halabja, threatening the main road to Sulaimaniya, Talabani’s political and military power base. Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda fighters have even managed to sneak behind US and Kurdish lines for guerrilla and terrorist attacks at the northern approaches to Halabja and Sulaimaniya. Twice, two groups of fighters, including al Qaeda men, managed to penetrate even further west of Sulaimaniya into northern Iraq, to set up predawn ambushes against traffic moving between the city and Kirkuk.
The Kurdish militia’s failure to rout the enemy, even with US and Turkish help, has the American war command worried and thinking seriously of sending in US special forces reinforcements to try and crush the Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda threat. It is important for the coming war to bring the sensitive Iraq-Iran border region of northern Kurdistan into friendly Kurdish hands and out of al Qaeda’s control.